FAREWELL, DEAR FATHER
Making a pilgrimage to say thank you
FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
Among the millions who descended on Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II was Father Raymond J. de Souza of Kingston, Ont. Father de Souza, who, as well as being chaplain of Newman House at Queen’s University, is also a newspaper columnist, kept a diary of his stay in Rome for Maclean’s. Excerpts:
SATURDAY, APRIL 2
I worried about how I would hear the news. That it was coming was not in doubt—the whole world knew that Pope John Paul II was in his final days, if not hours. An erroneous report from Rome of his death had reached me the day before, while I was doing a television interview with Global National. It was not how I wanted to hear of John Paul’s death: through an earpiece from an anonymous producer, while sitting in a studio.
The real news came when I was driving to the Toronto airport from my home in Kingston. It came from one of my closest friends, a successful federal politician, whom I’ve known since we were both in our early twenties in Calgary. Over the years, John Paul had a major impact on both of us. And therein lay an important element of his legacy: it is not only what he wrought on the world stage, but also in individual lives.
It’s one thing for a priest to recognize that. But my politician friend was an equally powerful example, a worldly-wise man inspired by the Holy Father to work for the common good, for liberty at home and abroad, in defence of life and the family. On my way to catch my flight to Rome, I had already experienced the first blessing of an extraordinary week: the news came as it should have, from another soul who knew what it was to have been touched by John Paul.
I remembered the first time I met the Holy Father: July 26,1995. As we were waiting for him to come down the line we had formed, I thought about a dozen different things I should say. But when he came to me, I could think of nothing. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and it was perfect. I would meet him another dozen or so times over the years, and it was always the same. As it was now—I had been preparing for this day for a long time, and written thousands of words in anticipation, but now I had nothing to say. “The fruit of silence is prayer,” Mother Teresa was fond of saying, and it was time to pray.
The flight over was uneventful enough, save for the few people who approached me to say they had heard the news and were sorry. I stopped over in London—all newspapers were treating the Pope’s
death as if it were the death of a national head of state. It was my first hint that what I was heading toward might not just be a big event for me and the Church, but the whole world.
On the flight from Heathrow to Rome, I sat beside a welldressed man reading Pope John Paul II: The Biography, published in 1995 by former New York Times correspondent and celebrated journalist Tad Szulc. The man was taking notes, and was likely one of the 6,000 journalists descending on Rome. Szulc’s book, riddled with factual errors and completely misreading John Paul, had provoked the Vatican into entrusting the interpretation of John Paul to another biographer, George Weigel. In his authoritative 1999 biography, Witness to Hope, John Paul had told Weigel of previous biographers: “They try to understand me from the outside; but I can only be understood from the inside.”
Covering the Vatican is not easy, but editors routinely dispatch reporters to Rome who wouldn’t know the difference between a
cardinal and a bishop. Imagine hockey being covered by people who don’t know the difference between a defenceman and a forward. Five years in the Vatican press corps had taught me that lesson a thousand times. For the most part, though, the week unfolded remarkably well—the coverage was vast, respectful and better informed than usual. But occasionally there were indications that the media only sees from the outside, not the inside. On the day that John Paul’s last testament was released, an NBC Nightly News correspondent reported that the Pope left behind no property at all. In response, NBC anchorman Brian Williams commented, “Imagine no possessions, as John Lennon would say.” But in its puerile nihilism, Imagine stands against everything to which John Paul dedicated his life. From the outside, Lennon’s “no possessions” and the Holy Father’s extreme simplicity may have looked the same, but from the
inside they were as different as, well, night and day. Williams meant well, and had an outstanding week, but it was a telling slip. My work this week would be to explain the basics, over and over again.
SUNDAY, APRIL 3
When priests travel, the first question they ask is, “Where am I going to offer Mass?” This can be a challenge when staying in hotels instead of religious houses, but it’s the most important thing we do and it can’t be skipped. So, after doing a few quick “hits” with Fox News, it was off to my former home (for five years) in Rome: the Pontifical North American College, where I was prepared for the priesthood. There, I celebrated Mass that evening, the Sunday in the Octave of Easter, or Divine Mercy Sunday.
In every Catholic Mass, the priest mentions at one point the name of the pope and the local bishop. For the first time in my priesthood, there was no one to mention, as the bishop of Rome is, by
that very fact, the pope. Sede vacante is the Latin expression for this period: the Holy See is vacant.
Seen with liturgical eyes, the death ofjohn Paul resonated deeply with those who knew his life. He died in the Octave of Easter, the most joyful eight days of the liturgical calendar. He died on the first Saturday of April, and first Saturdays are liturgically dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom John Paul was totally devoted. And it was Divine Mercy Sunday (liturgically, Sunday feasts begin the evening before, keeping the tradition of the Jewish Sabbath), a feast that John Paul himself created five years ago.
Central to John Paul’s theological vision was the idea that the mercy of God was the only answer to the mystery of sin and evil. Divine mercy is in some ways the key to John Paul’s theology and pastoral practice. That he died on the feast of Divine Mercy was the final providential act in a providential life.
To call down the mercy of God is a good description of what goes on at every Mass—the centre of every priest’s day. Today, I, like hundreds of thousands of others, called down the mercy of God upon the world, as we always do, and upon the soul of John Paul II, which we did for the first time.
MONDAY, APRIL 4
It was a late night, having to file a column and not collapsing into bed until 2 a.m. Hoping to catch up on jet lag, I didn’t set the alarm. But I woke at 4:30 a.m., my eyes on fire. They were swollen shut, red, and producing rivers of tears. The slightest light produced excruciating pain. After about two hours, I decided to call for help—not an easy task in my condition.
My friends in Rome, priests and nuns, were in their chapels at morning Mass. Finally I reached Father Owen Keenan, a Toronto priest studying in Rome. He came over, made some calls, got me something to eat, and we set out for the doctor. He guided me through the chaotic streets; at one point, he had to leave me for a few minutes outside a building near St. Peter’s. I waited in my clerical clothes and dark glasses, eyes streaming with tears. More than one passerby looked in my direction, impressed at the sorrow of this priest over the Holy Father’s death.
There is a priestly sense of humour. Father Owen said I was like St. Paul, but in the shadow of St. Peter. I responded that I hoped the scales would soon fall from my eyes. Unlike St. Paul, my temporary blindness was not caused by the radiance of the Risen Lord, but by television lights. Something had gone wrong with the filters the previous day, and several of us were suffering from something akin to sunburn of the eyes. Mine were affected worse than most, and for several days I had to wear sunglasses, even at night.
There are many scriptural passages about blindness, and sight recovered. I doubt I will read those passages, or preach about them, in the same way again. Eight hours of blindness is not very much. But it’s enough to learn how precious is the gift of sight.
On Monday, the Pope’s body was transferred to St. Peter’s Basilica to lie in state. Large crowds were expected, so the Vatican announced that, except for three hours between 2 and 5 a.m., St. Peter’s would be open all night. By morning, everyone realized that even those three hours might be needed because the crowds were immense. Over the 372 days of viewing, some 1.5 million people would pass through St. Peter’s, waiting for an average of 13 hours, but with some later arrivals lining up for over 20 hours.
They were peaceful, even cheerful as they waited. And they were young. As one learned Italian cabinet minister told me: “They recognize a father in a world without fathers.” There was something, of course, about John Paul and the young. The last World Youth Day he attended was in Toronto in 2002. We were surprised then at how the young came to him. The plans for him to attend WYD 2005 in Germany this August died with him. But it was clear to me that the young people he so loved were bringing his last WYD to him. On his deathbed, told that St. Peter’s Square was filled with young people accompanying him in prayer, he repeated several times: “I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.” He was grateful to us, and we to him. Indeed, while there was sadness in the air, it was gratitude that seemed to dominate. They—we—had come to say thank you to this marvellous pope, and to God for giving him to us.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 6
After our taping for Global National, anchor Kevin Newman returned to our work area in the makeshift media centre and tried to clear off some space for me to work on my column for the National Post. As he swept all the notes and scripts for that day’s news into the garbage, he smiled and said, “Father, it’s a bit of an allegory for our business, but at the end of the day we sweep that day’s history aside.”
For a writer—who lives by the Word—there is something existentially awkward about television. With live TV in particular, moments after the word is spoken, it is gone. And despite the fact that we have TV “personalities,” they too seem somewhat flattened by the two dimensions in which they appear. All of which is of
interest when assessing John Paul, the first truly TV pope, whose funeral may have been the largest television event in history. I would have thought John Paul was a writer at heart—he wrote poetry and plays in addition to his scholarly books and papal documents. But Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, national spiritual director of the Communion and Liberation movement in the United States, offered a different view. For John Paul, he argued, the most important form of communication was live theatre, because it was an encounter not only with the words but with the body of the other.
John Paul, who as a young man had trained in the theatre, believed that the whole person was engaged in the encounter, which made it truly human. Later in life, John Paul lived his pontificate most fully not in his teaching documents, but in the “live theatre” of the liturgy, his audiences and his travels. As the crowds queued up to see his body, I was much taken with that insight.
Perhaps John Paul’s most important theological contribution is what is called the “theology of the body.” John Paul argued that the body is not something our souls use, but rather an integral part of the person. The body makes the person present and its actions communicate the person to others. Pilgrimage is a form of communication of the body. That’s why John Paul went so far and wide in his travels, and why the millions came to Rome—to pay their respects in person. The viewing of the body, the lying in state, the funeral procession-all this care for the body was one last moment of theatre.
Theatre not as illusion, but, to the contrary, theatre as the encounter of persons in the body.
Late at night President George W. Bush arrived in Rome, along with his father and another former president, Bill Clinton. They went straight to St. Peter’s, where they knelt in prayer before John
Paul’s bier. It was an electric moment of grand theatre, of personal encounter, of esteem and gratitude communicated in the most lofty way possible. I was at the North American College when the President made his visit. The windows rattled from the helicopters overhead. I remembered the night John Paul returned from his extraordinary visit to the Holy Land in March 2000.1 heard his helicopter overhead and knew that he was home. It was the sound of history being made. So too was the rattling of the windows President Bush flew over.
THURSDAY, APRIL 7
Today I went to St. Peter’s to pray before the body. There is a difference between hearing the news, seeing the video, and the personal encounter. There he was, stiff and still, dressed as a priest should be in death: in Mass vestments, ready for the heavenly liturgy. Again,
as with all my other encounters with him before, there were no words that came to mind.
It is the rituals of dying that provide words when we can’t do so for ourselves. So I prayed what we always pray for the dead—that the angels might lead him into paradise, that the saints would welcome him at the Throne of Mercy, before the Lord he served so well, and His Blessed Mother, whom he loved so much. But then, confident that he was a saint already, I added something new—that he might help me and my classmates be what he was above all, a holy priest.
I had to get up early for the funeral, but many tens of thousands were out all night, sleeping in the streets around the Vatican, or in the parks where big screens had already been set up to televise the proceedings
to those who would not be able to get near St. Peter’s Square.
History is on everyone’s mind here. But the homily of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, John Paul’s most senior lieutenant for over 20 years, shifted the focus to holiness. We had spent a week focusing, quite rightly, on what John Paul had done. Cardinal Ratzinger now spoke to us about who John Paul was—a fervent Christian disciple above all, a holy priest, a zealous bishop and a suffering, sanctifying pope. The crowd began a chant of “Santo Subito” (“sainthood immediately”), echoing Ratzinger’s remarks that John Paul’s greatness lay in his holiness, not in his historical impact. It became clear during the week that this pope would be remembered as John Paul the Great for his role in history. But the people anticipated a more important title: Saint John Paul.
The presence of Ratzinger, widely touted to be a serious candidate to succeed John Paul, was
The final farewell came when John Paul’s simple wooden casket was turned to face the people one last time before being taken into the basilica. It was almost painful in its beauty: the bell tolling, the vast crowd applauding, cheering, crying, and the great arms of Bernini’s colonnade open wide to embrace for the last time the one who first appeared 26 years ago on the balcony above, heralding a new springtime for the Gospel. It was theatre of the highest sort, the personal encounter that is not an escape from reality, but reality read in its true depth.
And then he was gone. HI
also remarkable, but not because he presided over the funeral. That the Church, for the past 20 years, should have been led by a Pole with a German at his side is something truly incredible, given the difficult history of those countries. And now another bit of history, made possible by the holiness of the man being buried, and the man burying him.